We Know the Hours; What Was the Year?

Hugh C. McDougall (Secretary/Treasurer, James Fenimore Cooper Society)

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 3 (whole No. 17) December 1995 (p. 3).

Copyright © 1995.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Susan Fenimore Cooper’s nature journal, Rural Hours (1850) has proved as long-lived as her father’s Leatherstocking Tales; a new reprint edition has just been issued by Syracuse University Press.

Rural Hours contains entries for a year, beginning on March 1, 1848, and running through the following February 28. A few weeks ago your Editor’s attention was called to a letter from JFC, dated June 1, 1848, in which he notes that “Sue and Charlotte have just left us for Geneva [New York], where they have gone to pass a few weeks with their aunts.” [Beard: Vol. V, p. 368] Yet Rural Hours entries from Cooperstown continue uninterrupted, without any reference to a trip away.

What is going on? Susan carefully identifies her journal entries with both day and date (she never writes on a Sunday), but, except for noting that the journal was begun in 1848, she does not specify the year. Comparing her day/date entries with a perpetual calendar reveals that:

  • Mar. 1 - May 24 are from 1848
  • May 25 - Aug. 9 are from 1849
  • Aug. 11 - Feb. 28 are from 1848-49.

Presumably Susan had not intended her Cooperstown journal for publication when she had to interrupt it for a visit to Geneva; she therefore replaced the missing summer entries with those from the following year! This may help to explain why, although the journal ends on February 28, 1849, Rural Hours did not appear until well into 1850.

An examination of climate records confirms the evidence of Susan’s dates. Many of her entries for July refer to a very serious drought, and in fact it was in July 1849 that Cooperstown and adjacent parts of New York State had less rain (under one-half inch) than in any July since official weather records began in the 1820s. July 1848 was one of the rainiest on record!